Texpatriate endorses in Probate Courts

Editorial note: James Horwitz, the father of Editorial Board member Noah M. Horwitz, is the Democratic candidate for Probate Court No. 4. While we have sent questions to both candidates and will be publishing a completed questionnaire by James Horwitz, we have decided to not offer an endorsement in or otherwise cover that race between him and incumbent Judge Christine Butts, a Republican.

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One of the candidates for these courts always opens his remarks by noting that the Probate Courts hold a special place for the residents of Harris County. Ideally, one will never have to experience the process of Criminal Courts as a victim, witness or defendant. Likewise, with squabbles over money at Civil Courts or divorce at Family Courts. But every person close to you, and then yourself, will eventually die. The Probate Courts serve as a legal bookend for this inevitability, presiding over the distribution of an individual’s estate. They also deal with guardianship and mental health hearings.

Obviously, compassion and expertise is needed for these benches. Dealing with the elderly and deceased is an obviously sensitive subject that requires restrained jurists, willing to always hold themselves with integrity and respect. This board has found a number of key policy disagreements that we have with the incumbent Republican judges. In the three contest we will make a pick in, we choose the three Democrats.

First and foremost, we have been disturbed to see the cozy relationship — one that hovers around the line of impropriety — that judges take in recruiting and appointing ad litems. These coveted positions should not merely be the product of a spoils system between officeholders and their political friends, but should reflect the best and brightest of the legal system.

Probate Courts are also renowned for having somewhat light dockets. Compared to their absolutely swamped colleagues at the Criminal Court, these courts have comparably few cases. In fact, a compelling point could be made to reduce the number of courts, saving the County and its taxpayers money, if some simple and fiscally prudent actions are taken. First, in disputed probate matters, the Courts should rely more on mandatory mediation before full court proceedings are initialized. The practice is already commonplace in Family Courts, and could have the effect of significantly reducing the case load.

Furthermore, only the Democratic candidates have been vocal about the need to provide education throughout the county on the importance of probate planning. The families of those who die with a valid will can often wrap up their court experience somewhat rapidly. Comparably, the families of those who die intestate (that is, without a will) take up a far bigger portion of the court’s time. Quite literally, the amount of court time saved by implementing such policies could put these candidates out of a job if courts are consolidated. But these candidates aren’t merely looking for a paycheck from Harris County, they’re looking to help the residents of Harris County.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, this board has looked for open-minded candidates for these courts. In the next few years, unique conundrums will likely arise in these courts, such as the question of a common-law married same sex couple. For example, if two men who were legally married in another state (a union, therefore, currently recognized by the Federal Government) were residing in Texas, and one such man died without a will, would the court consider recognizing his husband as his common-law spouse? State ethical rules, of course, prohibit candidates from publicly opining on such issues, but we have tried our best to find candidates who would approach this conundrum ethically and compassionately.

COUNTY PROBATE COURT #1
Judge Loyd Wright, seeking a second term in office, has done a passable job on the bench. A Republican, the Houston Chronicle thought the most impressive action from his first term was getting a staff member to answer the court’s phone during business hours. I guess this is a good thing, but those are some pretty comically low standards. Harris County simply deserves better.

Wright has also made a point of not separating partisanship from the bench. From his official online social media accounts, he often espouses divisive political rhetoric that has little to do with the administration of probate courts. Tropes over the supposed “cultural war” and quotes galore from Rush Limbaugh line the page. Now, unless the infamous shock-jock has made some recent comments we are not aware of pertaining to wills and trusts, this is just inappropriate.

His Democratic opponent, Kim Hosel, is herself a tremendously experienced attorney who would not make the same mistakes. Impartial and compassionate, we have no doubt that Hosel would be a superior judge in all the issues we delineated above: ad litems, mediation, education and open-mindedness.

Accordingly, this board endorses Kim Hoesl for County Probate Judge #1.

COUNTY PROBATE COURT #2
Judge Mike Wood, a six-term incumbent, is a very well versed and qualified jurist. A former President of the National College of Probate Judges, he is uniquely situated to lead the court. Once again, if your number one goal is stability in the court and an efficient docket, we have no choice but to recommend Wood, a Republican, for re-election. He is a good judge who has, and would continue to, serve Harris County well.

But his opponent is also remarkably qualified. Serving both as a Municipal Judge in Houston (on two different occasions), as well as a Civil District Judge, Josefina Rendon, a Democrat, has more than 30 years of experience on the bench. If there is anyone who would have even more experience in the courthouse than Wood, it might just be Rendon.

In addition to her tremendous experience, Rendon also strikes us as the right choice on those same contentious issues. While in office as a Civil District Judge, her courtroom was a model of ethical behavior, among other praises. She has also pledged to seek out mediation with more vigor and work toward educational goals in the community. Both of which are admirable aspirations worthy of our support.

Accordingly, this board endorses Josefina Rendon for County Probate Court #2.

COUNTY PROBATE COURT #3
We do not often go out of our way to speak ill of a public servant. Thus, in most of these contentious judicial races, we will have good things to say even about the candidate we choose not to endorse. Unfortunately, this race is simply not one of them. Judge Rory Olsen, a Republican, seeking his fifth term on the bench, has morphed into the epitome of what is referred to in courtroom politics as “black robe syndrome.” Rude, abrasive and petty with counsel —  especially those he may have a political disagreement therewith — all too often, Olsen has figuratively transformed his courtroom into a personal fiefdom. By losing the respect of those we must practice law with, Olsen has lost much of his legitimacy as a judge.

His Democratic opponent, on the other hand, Jerry Simoneaux, is a true breath of fresh air. A longtime probate attorney, Simoneaux has many years of experience as both an attorney in private practice and as staffing attorney for a Probate Court. With valuable experience on both the inside and the outside oft he process, we have no doubt that Simoneaux would be ready to lead on day one. Further, we have every reason to believe that Simoneaux would otherwise be an ethical, compassionate and intellectual jurist. He’s beyond the shadow of a doubt the right choice.

Accordingly, this board endorses Jerry Simoneaux for County Probate Court #3.

The Texpatriate Editorial Board is comprised of Noah M. Horwitz & Olivia Arena of Austin, George Bailey of Boston, Luis Fayad of College Station and Andrew Scott Romo of New Orleans. Editorials represent a majority of the voting board.

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The Harris County lineup

Laziness heralded the day for the Texas Democrats shooting themselves in the foot at the close of the filing deadline, but it is unbridled stupidity carrying the banner for the Harris County Democrats next year. Again, not from the leadership, but from the average people. I will post a full list at the bottom of the post, but would like to talk about a few things first.

There will be six Court of Appeals slots up for election to a 6 year term, between the seats on the 14th Court of Appeals and the 1st Court of Appeals. These elections were remarkably close in 2008, meaning that changing demographics should probably make them just as competitive –if not more– in 2014. But will they be competitive? No. Because the Democrats, once again, were too LAZY to contest half of the slots. One candidate, Jim Sharp, actually won in 2008. He will be running for re-election, and Kyle Carter, a good District Judge, will run for another post. These two men will be great candidates! Another candidate, Gordon Goodman, has filed but I do not have any info on him yet, nor do any of my attorney sources have information on him.

When it comes to District Courts in Harris County, there are a full 36 posts up for election, between Civil, Criminal, Family and Juvenile courts. In 2010, every single one of these posts had a Democratic candidate, and as I recall most every candidate was well qualified and overall competent. Only 27 of these will be contested by the Democrats this time around, including four races where Democrats will be fighting one another instead of the incumbent Republican judges.

Please click here to continue reading!

Musings on the election

First up, Congrats to President Obama! Four more years! The President won Harris County by a few hundreds votes. Democrats expand their majority in the Senate to 55 and lessen the Republican majority in the House. All fantastic news.

Statewides
Republicans keep the Railroad Commission and the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals–no surprise there. However, Keith Hampton got clobbered, which is upsetting.

Courts of Appeals
1st and 14th stay all Republican, which is not surprising.

State Senate
Wendy Davis got re-elected. The composition stays at 19-12. Mario Gallegos re-elected posthumously, which means we will see a special election.

State House
Democrats pick up six or seven seats. Composition is at 95-55. Ann Johnson was defeated, again disappointing.

County Judges
11th–Mike Miller (D) re-elected.
61st–Al Bennett (D) re-elected.
80th–Larry Weiman (D) re-elected.
125th–Kyle Carter (D) re-elected.
127th–R.K. Sandhill (D) re-elected.
129th–Michael Gomez (D) re-elected.
133rd–Jaclanel McFarland (D) re-elected.
151st–Mike Engelhart (D) re-elected.
152nd–Robert Schaffer (D) re-elected.
164th–Alexandra Smoots-Hogan (D) re-elected.
165th–Josephina Rendon (D) defeated by Elizabeth Ray (R).
174th–Ruben Guerrero (D) re-elected.
176th–Shawna Reagin (D) defeated by Stacey Bond (R).
177th–Ryan Patrick (R) re-elected.
178th–David Mendoza (D) re-elected.
179th–Randy Roll (D) defeated by Kristin Guiney (R).
215th–Elaine Palmer (D) elected. Damn.
333rd–Tad Halbach (R) re-elected.
334th–Ken Wise (R) re-elected.
337th–Herb Richie (D) defeated by Renee Magee (R). Again, damn.
338th–Hazel Jones (D) defeated by Brock Thomas (R).
339th–Maria Jackson (D) re-elected.
351st–Mark Ellis (R) re-elected.
County Court 1–Debra Mayfield (R) re-elected.
County Court 2–Theresa Chang (R) re-elected.

Of the nineteen Democratic Judges: 14 win re-election and 5 lose.
Of the six Republican Judges: 6 win re-election.
Final Tally: 14 Demorats, 11 Republicans.

County Officials
DA–Mike Anderson (R) wins. No surprise.
Sheriff–Adrian Garcia (D) re-elected. Again, no surprise.
County Attorney–Vince Ryan (D) re-elected. Great News!
Tax Collector–Mike Sullivan (R) wins. However, it is close and Bennett hasn’t conceded yet.

Referendums
METRO Prop passed, City props passed, and all the Bond measures passed.

City Council
Martin wins without a runoff.

Discussion comes later.

Endorsements: Civil District courts

I am surprised how well my recommendations line up with the Chronicle. Without further wait:

11th: I endorse the incumbent, Democrat Mike Miller. As the Chronicle noted, Miller goes out of his way to treat those who go before his bench with “courtesy and respect”.

61st: I endorse the incumbent, Democrat Al Bennett.

80th: I endorse the incumbent, Democrat Larry Weiman. My father plays softball with Judge Weiman, and I have always noted his respectful demeanor towards the law.

125th: I break with the Chronicle to endorse the incumbent, Democrat Kyle Carter. Judge Carter seems to represent the new generation of progressives in our legal system, and I would find it a travesty of common sense to regress back to more of the old guard.

127th: I endorse the incumbent, Democrat R.K. Sandhill.

129th: I  break with the Chronicle to endorse the incumbent, Michael Gomez. Judge Gomez, like Judge Carter, is simply too valuable of a new breed of jurists to give up on.

133rd: I endorse the incumbent, Democrat Jaclanel McFarland. Good Democrat for a good seat.

151st: I endorse the incumbent, Democrat Mike Engelhart. Also a softball compadre of my dad, the amount I have interacted with Judge Engelhart, he seems to bring a sense for rightness and justice to the bench that Republican judges have been bankrupt in.

152nd: I endorse the incumbent, Robert Schaffer. As the Chronicle pointed out, Judge Schaffer commands huge respect from the attorneys in his courtroom.

164th: I endorse the incumbent, Democrat Alexandra Smoots-Hogan.

165th: I break with the Chronicle to endorse the incumbent, Democrat Josephina Rendon. Judge Rendon has done just as good of a job as her contemporaries in fulfilling an honorable term of office. The Chronicle, however, breaks to endorse the old, Republican incumbent who had held office until 2008. Judge Ray was part of the problem, and I do not want to go back.

215th: I endorse my first Republican of the year, Ken Shortreed. This is more of protest vote than anything else, I hold very little respect for Elaine Palmer after the way her campaign treated Judge Kirkland. She didn’t just break the 11th commandment, she DESTROYED it. Since it would be somewhat disrespectful to write-in my yellow dog, I will be voting for Shortreed.

333rd: I endorse the incumbent, Republican Tad Halbach. Judge Halbach seems to have a reputation to lawyers in Houston of being somewhat fair and judicious and his Democratic opponent doesn’t even seem to have a webpage.

334th: I break with the Chronicle to endorse Democrat Donna Roth. Incumbent Ken Wise always seems to be advocating extremist, tea party statements on his facebook page, which I really have no tolerance for. Donna Roth isn’t a newcomer to political campaigns.